It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will listen to the ideas of one of the country’s top law enforcement officers to impose even greater censorship and control over Russian society as part of enhanced efforts to win the “information war” with the West.

Alexander Bastrykin, the Chairman of the Russian Investigative Committee. Photo: RIA Novosti

For a very different take read: "Why does Russia's top investigator push for confrontation with the West?"

A recent op-ed piece by Alexander Bastrykin, chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee and one of the most influential figures in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, continues to generate controversy for its potentially far-reaching implications for Russian society.

Appearing in one of Russia’s most influential political publicationsKommersant-Vlast – the article called for a wide-ranging crackdown on freedom of speech and suggested that Russia should be taking more active steps to win the information war with the West.

These ideas, if brought to life, could change the fundamental underpinnings of Russia’s state system. That’s because Bastrykin heads one of the most notorious organs in the Russian authoritarian power structure – the Investigative Committee. It’s where criminal cases against members of the Russian opposition are usually concocted. Practically everybody who is considered a political prisoner in contemporary Russia was put under investigation as a result of the actions of this Investigative Committee.

Not only does Russia's chief investigator hold a powerful and influential position, but also he has direct access to President Putin. In fact, Bastrykin is known as one of the most trusted confidantes of Putin. They’ve known each other for a long time and even studied together in the 1970s at Leningrad State University’s law school, where Bastrykin was head of the student group. [At the time, St. Petersburg was still called Leningrad – Editor’s note]

Bastrykin differed from many other members of Russia’s modern political elite by his dedication to the unwavering conservatism of the Soviet era. However, the new policy of perestroika initiated by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s brought Bastrykin down from the political Olympus, and he was only able to return to a high-ranking government position after 2001, thanks to his acquaintance with the president. In short, Bastrykin is an ideologist of the “Soviet revanche” and a supporter of the restoration of the old ways that were destroyed by the democratic changes of the 1980s and 1990s.

What’s most interesting about the op-ed piece is how it ties together two very different concepts – the rise of radical Islam and the fear of Western color revolutions – with a single term: “extremism.” For Bastrykin, fighting “extremism” – in all its forms – should be the primary focus of the Russian state. Bastrykin argues that the number of extremist crimes has noticeably grown recently, and proposes measures to improve the situation.

For example, Bastrykin mentions the introduction of a state ideology and enhanced censorship of the media (both now directly prohibited by the Russian constitution). In addition, Bastrykin offers to prosecute those who “deny the results of the Crimean referendum,” similar to some countries’ efforts to prevent the denial of the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide.

In recent years Russians have become used to the fact that even the most fantastic and seemingly impossible ideas can quickly become part of active legislation and then forced upon them as a popular norm if the authorities considered it politically reasonable. A few of these examples include the ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by foreigners, de facto legalized homophobia, the “foreign agent” witch hunts, the annexation of Crimea and many others.

The ideas espoused by Bastrykin could be just his personal opinion, or they could be the political manifesto of a certain group within the Russian elite that has influence on the president. What’s most unpleasant in this story is that no one can tell at the moment what inspired Bastrykin publish his article in Kommersant.

So what would the Russian constitutional system look like in a few months if these ideas were actually put into practice?

First of all, we could expect tough measures to counter the “information war” which, in Bastrykin’s opinion, the West is waging against Russia. Bastrykin believes that the wave of extremism (primarily Islamic extremism) arose in the world because of the U.S.’s attempts to destabilize Eurasia. Washington managed to destroy the Soviet Union by embroiling its “brother nations” in conflicts with one another. Now the same trustworthy instrument is being used to cause conflicts between Russia and its closest neighbors.

Also read: "How propaganda re-shapes the information space for Russia, the West"

It’s clear that by presenting the U.S. as an almighty destructive power, the cause of all troubles for Russia and other nations, Bastrykin follows a widespread concept that has transformed from a subject for rational discussion into an object of ultimate faith. There are plenty of adherents of this concept all across the world, but it’s Russia where in recent years it has received an almost official status. State-run TV networks present the willingness of the U.S. to destabilize Russia and its partners as a fact that doesn’t require any extra proof. If one takes Bastrykin seriously, then it seems that denying this “fact” will soon be considered a crime in Russia as well.

All the measures offered by Bastrykin to resist the “information attacks” from the U.S. look rather logical – but only if we admit that the U.S. government has truly “joined the dark side” and is preoccupied with destroying modern civilization.

If, according to the article’s author, the U.S. really does spend billions of dollars to support radical Islamists and radical nationalists, then, surely, we need to swiftly create a state ideology based on a national idea to fight the radicals. If the U.S. really uses the Internet to push destructive slogans such as “developing democracy and civil society,” then surely we need to censor the Internet like China and other countries that faced similar aggression in the form of information attacks from the West. If Russian policy in Crimea is used as a reason for sanctions and pressure from the U.S. and its allies, it’s obvious that all who “deny the results of the Crimean referendum” deserve prosecution.

What’s concerning is that Russia could find itself on the brink of a “quiet” constitutional coup as a result of the political strengthening of Bastrykin and his followers. Along with the true believers in the U.S.’s “anti-Russian conspiracy” (Bastrykin, it seems, is among those), the initiatives for increasing political and ideological control find support among those members of the elite who see a useful instrument for retaining power by demonizing the U.S.

As a result of the actions of this coalition, which consists both of Soviet conservative revanchists and political cynics, Russia may lose all its democratic achievements of the last decades. It may again find itself in a hole of totalitarianism, and getting out of there would require great effort and great sacrifice. 

It’s depressing that President Putin, who is the ultimate guarantor and protector of the constitution, hasn’t yet given any appraisal of “Bastrykin’s manifesto.” However, his silence is still better than direct support of Bastrykin’s suggested measures. It gives some hope that Russia’s state system won’t fall victim to conspiracy fantasies and cynical political interests.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.